Accord sought on new jail

Published 9:43 pm Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The sheriff who catches the criminals, and his jail administrator charged with housing them as they await trial; the district attorney who prosecutes them and the judges who sentence them to prison terms; and finally, the county commissioners who will ultimately decide where a new jail will be built, when it will be built and how it will be funded — all met on Tuesday night in the first of many such meetings to be held until consensus and a plan to solve the jail issue have been accomplished.

Commissioner Jerry Langley led the meeting off by asking Capt. Catrena Ross, the Beaufort County Detention Center administrator, to give a rundown of the problems with the current jail. Ross rattled off the issues that have plagued the jail for several decades, arising as the jail population outgrew the space it was allotted shortly after the jail’s 1972 construction. Issues range from higher county expenditures because, due to space reasons, both kitchen and laundry services are subcontracted out, to the lack of security both internally, with no direct visual inspection of detainees, and externally, as anyone on the outside can walk up to the windows of the cellblocks and have conversations with those inside, according to Sheriff Alan Jordan.

Todd Davis, senior associate with Moseley Architects, a North Carolina and Virginia firm specializing in detention center planning and design, gave a detailed presentation on proper detention center planning, which he presented to the commissioners at their retreat last month.

“The county and the sheriff’s office assume risk by not properly segregating (jail) populations,” said Davis. The risk he referred to is injury, or death, leading to lawsuits against the county.

Davis advised building a facility in which risk can be avoided by having the space to separate male, female, juvenile, mentally ill, violent, and physically ill detainees. According to Davis, more space is needed than one thinks. Citing statistics from the National Institute of Corrections, he said that a jail operating at 70% capacity is considered full. Further citing state statistics, he said North Carolina currently has a 94 percent recidivism rate — any county jail built would have to pad bed numbers accordingly.

The size of a new facility is one of many issues the committee will address over the next few months: where the facility will be located; if remote video visitation and first appearances will be introduced, avoiding trips to the courtroom; whether a new jail will also include new facilities for the sheriff’s office and 911 center. The key stakeholders in the detention center broached the subjects as a group for the first time. While there was much discussion, consensus was found on a number of issues. All were in agreement that the time had come to build a new jail facility; that the safety of both prisoners and detention officers is of utmost importance; that once the process gets started, construction of a new detention center will be a hot political issue.

“I care about the safety of our detention officers. I care about the safety of our prisoners,” said County Commissioner Hood Richardson. “What I don’t care about is how nice (the jail) is.”

Davis will submit a proposal for a comprehensive study on a new Beaufort County jail to the Board of Commissioners. The next committee meeting is scheduled for April 24.